Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 1/13/2011
See below for answers to questions (marked with an asterisk) posed in the briefing that required follow up.
* At Wednesday’s East Room news conference with President Hu, they’ll each take 2 questions from journalists in the room.
** This week, the President received email from ministers offering thoughts and prayers on the tragedy and reviewed scriptures that he believed would best comfort the families in his remarks. In addition, the President’s daily devotionals have been geared towards issues of comfort and renewal.
10:19 A.M. EST
MR. GIBBS: Good morning.
Q Get any sleep?
MR. GIBBS: About three hours. Charitably I’d say -- I’d round up to three hours, how about that? But I know some of you all got less than that, so -- as the press charter was in a little bit later.
Let me do one quick announcement before we go forward. President Obama will meet with President Zardari of Pakistan here at the White House tomorrow. The two leaders will discuss aspects of the U.S.-Pakistan strategic partnership, including our mutual commitment to economic reform, support for democracy and good governance, and joint efforts to combat terrorism.
The meeting is closed press, and we’re going to do some still stuff out of it.
With that, take us away.
Q Thank you.
MR. GIBBS: How are you?
Q Why is that meeting closed press tomorrow?
MR. GIBBS: That’s just -- that’s just the way we’ve decided to do it. He’s in town for Holbrooke’s service, and we thought it was a good opportunity to add a meeting with President Zardari.
Q Do you think with the speech last night the President accomplished what he wanted to accomplish with the speech?
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think in -- I talked a little bit about this on the plane on the way back -- I think the President had thought about this on many different levels since we all got the news Saturday of the horrific and senseless events. I think he thought of this as the President of the United States. I think he thought of this as a friend of the congresswoman. And I think he thought, as you all heard him talk about in the Oval Office on Monday, I think he thought of this as a parent. And I think we’ve all probably gone through -- many in this country have gone through thinking about this at many different levels.
I think what the President had hoped to do last night was to speak both to the community of Tucson and to the nation. And I think his message of ensuring that our enduring way of government moves forward in a way that best honors the memories of those that were victims of this tragedy, as well as those that we look forward to seeing recover.
Q When he called for better discourse last night, did he specifically have Sarah Palin in mind and her comments about “blood libel”?
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think -- I would point you to many things in the President’s -- in venues that the President has discussed this, the notion of civility in our public discourse -- dates back to his time in the State Senate in Springfield; at the University of Michigan, at the commencement last year. I have heard him say for as long as I’ve been with him the notion of disagreeing without being disagreeable. Those are aspects I think that he has tried to live his public life by.
And obviously the speech -- the President added a pretty hefty notion of empathy in the speech that, again, I think he’s spoken on on many different occasions.
Q Robert, what is your view on Sarah Palin’s choice of words with the phrase “blood libel”?
MR. GIBBS: You know, I’m -- I think there are plenty of people that can render opinions on that. I’m not going to do that. And I think -- I’m happy to talk about what the President said last night. I think that’s the role I best play in this.
Q Shifting gears to the China visit next week, what does the President hope to accomplish? And can you talk about the format for the press conference? I know that you pushed hard for that. Are there going to be more than one question each side, or --
MR. GIBBS: I will admit, I’m a tad behind. I believe there will be more than one question, but I will double-check on that. Obviously there will be an opportunity for question. *
I think the issues that you’re -- you will -- that the President wants to discuss are many of the issues that you have heard us as an administration talk about for the length of our tenure here.
It’s an important bilateral relationship. Obviously there will be discussion on global economic issues, as well as security issues like North Korea and Iran, and important issues of political reform and human rights.
Our hope is -- and again, I’m still working out some of the details on this -- but we will have -- likely be joined in some manner tomorrow by our National Security Advisor Tom Donilon to walk through some of what you’ll see next week and some of -- additional things that we hope to discuss and cover.
Q Back on last night and the idea of unity, the President has talked about and campaigned about bringing the country together in 2004 and 2008. In what way has he not been able -- why has he not been able to bring the country together in the two years that he’s been President? And is there some way in which his behavior is going to change after Tucson?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, Ann, I think that what the President would tell you on that answer is that -- I think -- and I think this was conveyed in his speech last night -- that we are not going to remove disagreement from our democracy. And we shouldn’t. That’s the underpinning of the notion of our self-government. But the tone and the approach that we take in those debates I think is what we all hope changes because of both the events of the past few days, but I think anybody would say that -- and, again, I think you see it in the President’s remarks, that our civil discourse has become more and more polarized. And I think -- I think the President hopes that, again, we can have disagreements without disparaging and being disagreeable toward others. And, again, I think you’re going to see plenty of opportunities in the next few years where you have those disagreements.
I think that, again, the tone and the approach on both sides -- and this isn’t just a one-way street, it’s for us too -- to ensure that we’re doing this in a way, as I think the President so eloquently said last night, is befitting the memory of those in Tucson.
Q Did Governor Palin’s message yesterday, the overall message, head in the wrong direction?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think there are plenty that can --
Q She’s a public figure; the White House could have an opinion on her overall message.
MR. GIBBS: And, again, I’m happy to speak to what the President said and how he came about saying it, but I’ll let others opine on that.
Q Has he seen her video, Robert?
Q Your own presence here, have you decided how --
MR. GIBBS: Yes. Have I or has he?
Q The President.
MR. GIBBS: I don’t know the answer to that.
Q Your own presence here, have you decided on a departure date?
MR. GIBBS: I have not. I have -- I don’t have any news on that.
Q Can I follow on Ann’s first question about tone and tenor, and whatnot?
MR. GIBBS: Sure.
Q Since we’ve got the State of the Union coming up, the President in the last State of the Union talked about reaching out more to Republicans, wanting to have regular meetings with them. And he seemed to be honest and frank after the midterm elections in telling them, the Republican leaders in private, look, I need to do a better job on this. He was upfront about that.
So my question is, with a new State of the Union coming up, there’s been some speculation that maybe the President will use the State of the Union to build on last night. How do you see him -- whether or not he really is going to build on last night in the State of the Union, will there be the similar tone and approach? And then how does he actually take the action to follow up on what he said in last year’s State of the Union about reaching out? Like, how does it become a reality instead of both sides saying, we’re going to do it? How does he think --
MR. GIBBS: Well, a couple of things. And I think you’re very correct, Ed, in -- obviously elements of what you heard last night, improvements in our civil discourse and how we debate issues, will certainly play a role in this year’s State of the Union. I think -- again, this is something I think if you go back and -- whether it’s in the campaign or -- you certainly can see it visibly in the 2004 convention address, but obviously speeches throughout his career where he talks about this.
And I think you’re right -- the President was very candid with those Republican and Democratic leaders after the election that he had to do better. And I think, quite frankly, we were -- the country was successful at -- in getting things done in the lame duck session because of that very notion. And I think you’ll see -- I think you’ll see a greater effort on our part in a much more systematic way to do the types of meetings that we had here before.
Again, I don’t think anybody wants to take -- or I don’t think anybody believes that we’re going to simply remove the disagreement from our democracy. That’s the very definition of it. But I think the way in which we do it, the tone, our approach, is something I think we will all -- we all should be much more mindful of, and I think that’s -- I think that was in large part --
Q So it seems like that will be a big part of the State of the Union in some way at least.
MR. GIBBS: You know, I have not, obviously, looked through a ton of the drafts at this point, but I think there’s no question that it will play a role.
Q Just a quick follow, then. How does Bill Daley play into that, since we haven’t had a chance to talk to you to brief this week, in terms of he’s taken over officially? There’s been a lot of talk about his ability to work with Republicans. The Chamber of Commerce and others immediately said this is a great pick. Moving forward, what kind of impact do you think Bill Daley will have in terms of that relationship with Republicans but also moving the President’s agenda, et cetera?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think obviously Bill is somebody who brings vast experience working with both sides of the aisle. I think that was true when he was Commerce Secretary and I think that’s been true in his endeavors in business. And I think, as you said, it’s reflected in the statements that were made upon the announcement last week that he would assume the job of chief of staff. And as you said -- I was not -- I was in Tucson yesterday, so I was not here yesterday, but he began yesterday at the 7:30 a.m. senior staff meeting.
And, look, I think that -- again, I think he brings a vast amount of experience in working with others, but, look, I think it also, for all of us, has to -- the truth is, it’s all of us. It’s everybody that works here, it’s everybody that works in government and public service, and it includes the leaders of our country.
Q Keeping with that general much lighter note, given the solemn times, have you decided not to put toilet paper on the White House because of your wonderful Auburn victory?
MR. GIBBS: I think it is a wonderful tradition probably best reserved for Toomer’s Corner in Auburn, where there’s -- there are many rolls currently hanging in a beautiful tree there now.
Q How about in front of your house? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: My son is quite excited that we’re going to do that for the third time. I realize I might have unwound something that might be harder in the end to wind back, but -- yes --
Q So to speak.
MR. GIBBS: Right. But I think it’s entirely possible that we’ll do that.
Q You mentioned earlier that there was a lot of empathy --
Q What a lovely tradition. (Laughter.)
Q -- a lot of empathy inserted into the speech. How did the President come to that? Because in the past it’s been noted that perhaps he wasn’t as forthcoming with empathy as some of his predecessors. Was it new staff advice? Was it the five-day period which he had to think this thing over before he spoke?
MR. GIBBS: Well, first and foremost, look, again, I think -- I’ve heard him discuss and I think many of you all have heard him discuss over the course of many years the notion that -- what it’s like to understand and -- understand other people, people we don’t agree with maybe in a political sense. I guess the -- one way of saying it is to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes, so to speak.
I think that -- that’s animated much of his public life. Again, I’d trace that -- probably the first time you heard it on a bigger stage obviously is the 2004 convention speech.
Look, this was -- and I did a little of this on -- last night and you’ve seen the gaggle. I mean, this was -- I think last night was a speech that was very much the President’s and he spent a great deal of time going through his thoughts on this and spent a lot of time working on what he wanted to say, including making edits even after the plane had landed in Arizona last night.
Q Well, the empathy seems to adhere more to his comments about the victims than it did about the political discourse. He’s said those things before, the political discourse.
MR. GIBBS: Right. No, no, I meant the empathy in the sense of -- I guess I’d point you in that sense to the -- those sections of the speech talking about these individuals whose lives were celebrated remind us of our mothers, our grandmothers, our brothers, and just the notion of using their example in a way to lead our lives in a better way befitting their memory. Again, I think that’s something the President has spent a lot of time thinking about and talking about over the course of many years, including, as you mention, and I’ve talked about here, our civility and our civil discourse.
Q Robert, was there much study of previous presidential speeches following a national tragedy of this nature?
MR. GIBBS: Mike, let me see if there’s any information on that. I don’t know what -- I’m not entirely sure what he might have read before this. Again, I think a lot of the process of this was in personal reflection, was in -- I mean, I think, again, when we all heard the news, it was hard to understand. It still is. It’s senseless. As you heard the President say, we may never truly know why. And it gives you an opportunity to reflect. It is hard to read some of those stories, the lives that people led, what they were doing on that otherwise beautiful day in an exercise in our own democracy shattered by the events.
Q In terms of trying to change the tone a bit, you have last night’s speech, you have the State of the Union coming up. Is there thought of maybe a presidential event that could --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think in the near term, obviously, I guess I would point you to the State of the Union. But, look, I think the President will continue to look for opportunities to build on what Ed talked about and what the President has talked about, which is how we reach across the aisle, how we have that more civil debate and discourse.
And, again, to go back to the Michigan speech, it was -- said a little bit of it last night, but I think the notion that -- what we lose in a debate that is overly charged and overly personal is the ability at some point to all sit together at a table and come to a good conclusion on solving some of our most serious problems.
Again, I point to I think the -- some of what happened in the lame duck session of Congress, which was -- whether it was the tax cuts, whether it was the START treaty, whether it was “don’t ask, don’t tell” -- all very important achievements in the sense that we had been struggling with their -- those questions for quite some time and found some bipartisan answers. And I think that provides -- hopefully provides a roadmap for how we can get some stuff done this year.
Q Last one for me. Is it hard for you guys to -- after such a national tragedy -- to know when to get back to business full-time in terms of full steam ahead with the agenda when the nation is sad?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think that -- again, I think we’ve all had time -- and I think you guys, too -- I mean, I think everybody in the country has had some time to reflect on this. And I think all those that were -- remember, they were there to, again, see the exercising of the way we govern our country, and I think that while we will continue to celebrate the lives of those that were lost and hope for and pray for the speedy recovery of those that were injured or some that are and some that aren’t in the hospital, I think you’ll see -- because they would have wanted that -- us getting back to the business of, again, how do we solve those problems and how do we do it in a way that lives up to the thoughts and the aspirations of those that were involved in the tragic events.
Q Robert, talk of civil discourse, of sitting down and talking together. Much of the course of the last two years, Republican leaders for a time were up here on a weekly basis off camera. There was the trip to Baltimore. There was the Blair House trip. And what ended up happening is people would walk away from that, instead of emphasizing areas of agreement, would emphasize their areas of disagreement in order to score points with their various -- varied political bases. So, my question is, voters respond to red meat. Voters respond to the differences. How can the words, no matter how eloquent are spoken by the President or anyone else, change the political incentive towards vitriol?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think we have to separate out differences and discourse, because, as I said, I don’t -- we’re not going to -- we are not going to take differences out of our democracy. And I don’t -- that’s inherent in -- look, the founders had some very different ideas amongst themselves as to how to construct the union that we call America now. We have taken occasion in more than two centuries to build off of some of those debates and create something more toward the perfect union that we strive for.
So I don’t think you’re going to remove difference from democracy and self-government. But the way we approach and the way we talk about those differences I think is something that all of us -- the President, leaders of both parties, members of both parties -- have to work hard to strive to make progress on.
And it’s -- the description that you laid out at the beginning of this is the easiest -- it’s the easiest thing. And we have to resist the temptation, because this is hard. But it’s -- changing our discourse, as I said -- and, again, I’d point you back to the Michigan speech where the President talked about the fact that this isn’t discourse just for the sake of better discourse. It is -- there’s a means to that end in the sense that if you and I so violently disagree that we, in order to make our arguments, tear each other down, it is impossible at some point to sit down and construct a solution that moves our country forward.
And that’s what -- I don’t doubt that just as in a town meeting that the President might do, that there were people that disagreed with the political views of Congresswoman Giffords that were at that meeting to ask her questions. That’s the great experiment of self-government. But we have to strive to have our discourse played out on a plane that does the discussion of our big problems justice.
Q Where the rubber might meet the road in terms -- we’re talking rather philosophically, but in terms of a concrete policy issue, gun control seems to be -- you can’t touch it, especially if you’re a Democrat or a Democratic leader in this town. The assault weapons ban is expired. Apparently, the sort of extended clip that this individual was able to obtain he would not have been able to obtain had it still been in force. Where is the administration on gun control generally, the extension of the assault weapons ban in particular? How hard will you push, considering it’s now considered to be a political loser by Democrats?
MR. GIBBS: Mike, let me say this, that obviously we are and have been focused on the important healing process. We will have an opportunity to evaluate ideas and proposals that may be brought forth as a result of circumstances and the facts around this case. The President, again, since I have been with him in 2004, has supported the assault weapons ban, and we continue to do so. And I think we all strive, regardless of party, to ensure that we’re doing everything we can to reduce violence. We’ll have an opportunity to evaluate some of the other proposals.
Q One of the conclusions of the President’s commission on the BP Horizon oil spill -- and I find this a little alarming if it’s true, in light of the predictions of $4 gasoline by Memorial Day -- one of the conclusions was that the administration does not have a comprehensive energy plan. It said that there are a lot different programs, grants, et cetera, but no overarching strategy. Would you agree with that?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that I would agree with this notion: that you have seen Presidents date back many, many, many administrations discussing our need to take concrete actions to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, to look for and embrace a clean energy economy. We have -- we still have a lot of work to do -- and when I mean “we,” I mean the country -- in taking some of those very important steps.
I think if you look at the investment in the previous two years in -- continued investment in wind energy production, in windmill turbine production, in solar, in, as you’ve heard me discuss on a thousand occasions, increase advanced -- advances in investments in electric batteries for cars, the steps that we’ve taken with business and with industry to increase fuel mileage standards not just for cars and not just for light trucks but even for heavier-duty trucks.
But I don’t think anybody would disagree with the notion that there’s still much work left to be done. We still have progress that we need to make so that we don’t find ourselves 10 or 20 or 30 years from now continuing to have the very same debates about how we reduce that influence of foreign oil and our dependence on it.
That’s going to take many forms. Our administration made the first investment in building a new nuclear power plant in more than three decades because there isn’t one thing that we’re going to do that’s going to fix all this. There are many different approaches. You’ve heard the President -- more specifically as it relates to oil, we have to -- there are certainly -- there’s drilling in the Gulf, there’s drilling in other regions of the United States, and we have to ensure that all of those activities are done with the utmost safety and care.
Q As you know, if gasoline does indeed get to $4, that’s a threat to this fragile recovery; it’s a big tax on consumers. Is there anything you can do about that?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, there are obviously -- and there are many people that would get upset at me if I started to opine on oil and gas prices, so I won’t. But I would say -- you know, look, we are -- we have to continue to take steps to impact the medium and the long term even as we go through the cyclical adjustments that you see year in and year out that are reflected in fluctuating prices. The question is whether or not we’re going to get about doing that now or we’re going to continue to punt some of this year after year after year and find ourselves having this debate and discussion repeatedly.
Q When you talk about the need to reduce imported oil, are you referring specifically to the Middle East or our biggest supplier, which is Canada? Is Canadian oil so bad, or who are you referring to?
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think you’ve heard the President -- and I’m happy to dig up some of the quotes. I think that having our fragile economy dependent upon energy that comes from any other place is -- presents its own inherent risks. And there’s a way of increasing our -- adding to the number of jobs that we have in this country and dealing with our energy problems, are all in the same action. And I think that’s our hope.
Q Robert, what did the President think about the pep rally aspect and tone of the event last night?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I’m not a Tucsonian, obviously, but I think that having been there for a day before the President got there, you could understandably feel the weight of what had happened. And I think part of that -- I think part of the grieving process is celebrating the lives of those that were lost and celebrating the miracles of those that survived. I think you’ve all probably by now read the transcript from the two members on the plane last night about their personal experience with the congresswoman in her hospital bed. That -- it’s an emotional thing to read.
Again, I think -- I will say that the speech -- I read the speech several times and thought that there wouldn’t be a lot of applause, if any. I think many of us thought that. But I think you -- I think there was a celebration, again, of the lives of those that have been impacted, not just those that -- not just at that grocery store but throughout the country. And I think that if that is part of the healing process, then that’s a good thing.
Q Can you share with us any words the President said to the parents of Christina?
MR. GIBBS: I was not in the room for those, and obviously he had an opportunity to speak with them on the phone a couple of days ago. I think all of us who -- I don’t think this is reserved for parents; I think this is anybody that -- I think anybody that reads that story, it’s a tough story to read. It is a tragedy sort of -- it’s a tragedy beyond any real description.
Q Can I follow up on the atmosphere? I just want to ask, why was the reason for choosing the arena as opposed to maybe a church or a smaller venue?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I would point you to the university on that and I think it’s important to understand this was -- we were invited to and accepted quite happily the invitation of the university. I think having that many people there and being able to include people from the community was -- again, was and is an important part of that healing process. But in terms of logistics and things like that, I’d point you to the university as they’d probably be better to answer your questions on those sorts of things.
Q Robert, going back to China and the answer to Caren’s question, you listed some of the items on the agenda, and it’s quite a full plate. Can you talk about whether there are any expectations for decisions made or agreements signed as a result of those talks?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, Roger, let me -- again, I would point you to a few things. We’ll have a chance to talk to Tom tomorrow on some of this. I’m not going to get ahead of the official events of next week. I’d point you to what Secretary Geithner said obviously yesterday. I know Secretary Clinton also is going to speak on the topic of China tomorrow. So I don’t really want to get ahead of that process too much.
Q But for now, based on what you know, can you talk about the --
MR. GIBBS: I can reiterate that based on what I know, I’m not going to get ahead of -- and based on what I don’t know, I’m not going to get ahead of the official events.
Q One other thing, the President’s schedule is fairly plain today, with the exception of meeting with advisors. Can you talk to us about what else he’s doing? For example, staff appointments, going over --
MR. GIBBS: He’s got -- I don’t have his schedule with me. He’s got a number of meetings today. I think he’s -- I’m not even -- I haven’t looked at tomorrow’s schedule. The President has got -- spends a lot of time here in meetings. I know there’s a regularly planned long NSC meeting later today as well.
Q Robert, you said that he has always been for the assault weapons ban. One of the other gun control issues that’s come out of this is seeing if there’s something that could be done to prevent mentally ill people, like the shooter, from purchasing handguns. I’m wondering if the President thinks it’s possible. And has he directed anyone to look into this?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, Mara, I would leave the legislative proposals -- obviously, as I said earlier, we’ll have an opportunity -- I don’t know if that evaluation on specific proposals that have been introduced thus far has been done. But we will certainly look at --
Q Well, sure. But last night he talked about the importance of like examining our assumptions about issues. I mean, he seemed to almost invite a discussion about this.
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think what the President said was it is important and it is required of us to look at all the facts and the circumstances that surround these events. And I know that’s what law enforcement and investigators are doing on the ground. And I think we all look forward to learning more about what happened and try to explain the why.
Q But he specifically said in order to prevent this from happening again.
MR. GIBBS: Again, Mara, I don’t have a lot more than the fact that this is -- evaluation of the facts and how we got to a tragedy like this I think requires us to look at everything.
Q Robert, I’d like to ask you about the President’s meeting yesterday with the Lebanese prime minister, which occurred just as his government was collapsing. Does the President believe that the actual statement of getting an indictment in the Hariri massacre of -- the Hariri assassination in 2005 is more important than what comes after, whether it’s a collapse of the government or --
MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously, look, I, first and foremost, would point you to the readout from the President’s meeting yesterday. Again, I was not in the building yesterday. I was in Arizona.
I’ll reiterate what part of that readout says, which is that I think the resignations only demonstrate the fear and the determination that the Hezbollah-led coalition has to block the government’s ability to conduct its business and, most importantly, to get some much-needed answers and justice on the assassination inquiry. Our support is for the sovereignty of the Lebanese people, and we’ll continue to strive toward that.
Q Robert, one more about last night’s speech. I know you talked about the personal nature of how the speech was constructed. But what do you think of some of the comparisons that have been drawn between that speech and Bill Clinton’s speech after the Oklahoma City bombing and other tragedy speeches? Are those comparisons overdrawn, or do you think there’s something to it?
MR. GIBBS: Look, obviously there are historians that will weigh in on these topics. Mark, I think there are moments in our history -- Oklahoma City, the Challenger accident, what happened in Arizona -- that are important for the President to talk to the nation about, and to help be part of the process of celebration and healing. I think that’s how he approached -- that’s how he approached this.
And obviously we’ve had -- we’ve had, and every President does, has unfortunately far too many examples -- a mining accident in West Virginia, a shooting at Fort Hood certainly immediately come to mind as things that the President has had to do. But, look, I think he approached it as -- in his role as President, as somebody that might help to further that healing process.
Q What do you think of those who say it might have been a turning point in the President’s --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think it was an event, as I said, that affected all of us as Americans, in all reaches of our country, because of the just truly shocking nature of it. And I think our -- I think anybody that holds that office would tell you they’d gladly give up the idea of having to do those speeches if somehow we could figure out how to make sure that senseless tragedies or accidents never happen. That’s probably not going to happen, but I think the role that any President can play is to work -- help the country work through questions that -- some of which have simply no answer.
Q Following your exchange with Ed, do you have any thoughts on the suggestion by Senator Udall that the parties should not sit separately at the State of the Union, they should be --
MR. GIBBS: George, I saw an article on that. I haven’t had an opportunity to talk to some folks around here on that. It’s an interesting idea. I think -- and I’ll say this -- look, again, we’re not going to remove the disagreement in politics. We’re going to have debates soon. But, you know, maybe not having a physical aisle separate us is -- would be a good thing as we talk about the state of our union. And that’s everybody; that’s not one side or the other -- that’s everyone.
Q Is it time to move past the sort of pep rally aspect of the modern State of the Union and the dueling standing ovations?
MR. GIBBS: Well, you guys have -- some of you guys have been up there in those rooms. It’s a little -- it gets a little -- it’s like a seesaw. It gets -- you know, I think that -- I think everybody approaches the -- I think we all want to and look to the State of the Union as a very serious and sober discussion of the important challenges that lie ahead. It’s time to reflect on the strength of our country, the resilience of our citizens in tough times of either war or economic turmoil, but more importantly to chart that course forward. I know that’s the way the President is approaching the construction of and the writing of that speech.
Q A kind of personal question, but I’m wondering, it’s been such a grief-filled week at the White House and I’m wondering if you can say anything about how the President has personally wrestled with this.
MR. GIBBS: I mean, again, I think you can -- truthfully, I think that the reflection is in that -- is in what he wrote and what he delivered last night.
Q Has he had clergy members in to pray with him or talk with him?**
MR. GIBBS: Let me check on -- I know he gets stuff from Joshua each day on that, but I don’t know if there’s been additional stuff. I’ll find that answer.
Q And I also just wonder if there’s been a moment when the President has offered counsel to his own staff.
MR. GIBBS: Let me find that out, let me -- Glenn.
Q Robert, the President has made many speeches about civility and elevating the level of discourse, but the thing that really made it seem to resonate this time, obviously, was the personal aspect of this tragedy, in particular the story of this nine-year-old girl. Do you think his ability to connect on that particular issue has been enhanced by the nature of this tragedy, or did his speech last night reflect a new approach to sharing some more of his emotions in public?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, again, I think you can go back and see -- I think the President has discussed many of these topics on a number of occasions. I don’t think there’s any doubt, Glenn, that there’s -- when you are -- when we as a country are forced to confront the realities of a tragedy like that, it provides -- as I think you heard the President discuss, it provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the past, on the present, and on the future. And I think he’s taken an opportunity to once again do that.
I think his hope is that those moments of reflection and our actions that come from it won’t simply be governed by doing so in times of unspeakable tragedy, but will hopefully govern more of our actions on a day-to-day basis.
Q But as an approach in speaking to the American public. And you’ve read criticism of him in the past in terms of not really being able to empathize with folks and the comparisons between himself and Clinton. Those really went by the wayside last night; this speech had a tremendous emotional impact. I mean, do you think that that will fundamentally --
MR. GIBBS: I will say -- well, you know, look, I don’t want to get into political prognosticating. I think the President over the course of his career has done a pretty good job touching on the hopes and the aspirations and the dreams of many in this country. And, again, I think yesterday provides an opportunity to reflect.
Q Thank you, Robert. I think there seems to be agreement across the board about the President touching on civility and healing in his remarks last night, and bipartisanship. Is he aware of and does he have a reaction to some of the comments made in the last week by members of his own party in the other direction, notably Congressman Clyburn making his suggestions about free speech and the nature of it, or Senator Bernie Sanders, including reference to the tragedy in a fundraising letter and suggesting Arizona is unsafe for people who aren’t Republicans.
MR. GIBBS: I’m not going to -- there are many who can comment on all this. I would simply point you to I think what the President said last night. It was a message that was not reserved for or intended for anybody in particular. It was intended for and I think received by the whole country. And I don’t -- there are plenty who can play pundit. That’s not my role.
Q Is he aware of those comments from --
MR. GIBBS: I haven’t talked to him about it.
Q Just a mechanical question. When he first heard about the congresswoman opening her eyes, he heard in the car, did he decide right then to put it in the speech? And how did that work -- did he make a printout, did he decide where -- how did he decide where it went and how to say it?
MR. GIBBS: Well, he -- just to go through the arc of it -- we talked a little bit about this, again, late on the plane but I should do it for everybody who might not have seen that. This happened -- his first stop in the second-floor ICU was in her room, spent about 10 minutes there with members of her family, with her husband. And then goes on throughout the hospital seeing other patients, doctors, nurses, other staff, thanking them for what they had done.
The three friends go in -- and I don’t know the exact time -- and have the exchange and there’s the miracle of opening her eye and of responding to their voices and their memories as they’re talking aloud to her.
The President ended by seeing the trauma team that had first received those harmed in the shooting on Saturday, and then got into the car for the very short drive to the McKale Center. In the car, along with the First Lady, was her husband and her mother, and that’s when the President first heard the story and talked to the husband about whether he would be comfortable with sharing that story. Obviously there’s a lot of personal and privacy issues that I think the President wanted to ensure -- he didn’t write any of it out.
He mentioned to me -- we ended the meetings with the families about nine or 10 minutes before the President went out and in the hold he mentioned to me that at that -- that he would insert that story in the portion of the speech where he discusses how she’s aware that we are all there rooting for her. And that’s how it all came to pass.
Q Robert, did you know that Bill Daley gave money Dan Hynes in 2004, and do you think the President cares?
MR. GIBBS: I probably knew that at some point, and, no, I don’t think he cares.
Q Change subjects?
MR. GIBBS: Sure -- unless you want to follow up on Dan Hynes. (Laughter.)
Q First my condolences to all the Americans, especially obviously to the victims. But second as to why -- it does not seem all that incomprehensible, at least from the outside. It’s the reverse side of freedom. Unless you want restrictions, unless you want a bigger role for the government --
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me do this -- because, look, I think there’s a -- there’s an investigation that’s going to go on -- there’s a --
Q No --
MR. GIBBS: Hold on, let me -- let me take my time back just for a second. I think there’s an investigation that’s going to go on. I think there are -- I think as it goes on, we will learn more and more about what happened.
I think as the President was clear last night, we may never know fully why or how. We may never have an understanding of why, as the President said, in the dark recesses of someone’s mind, a violent person’s mind, do actions like this spring forward. I don’t want to surmise or think in the future of what some of that might be.
But I think it’s important to understand that, as I said earlier, the event that was happening that day was the exercise of some very important, very foundational freedoms to this country: the freedom of speech; the freedom to assemble; the freedom to petition your government; democracy or a form of self-government that is of, by and for the people -- all of -- all very quintessential American values that have been on display along with the tremendous courage and resilience of those in that community and throughout this country that have had to deal with this tragedy.
Q Exactly, Robert. But this is what I was talking about -- exactly this. This is America, the democracy, the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, the freedom to petition your government. And many people outside would also say -- and the quote, unquote “freedom” of a deranged mind to react in a violent way is also American. How do you respond to that?
MR. GIBBS: I’m sorry. What’s the last part?
Q The quote, unquote “freedom” of the deranged mind to respect -- to react violently to that, it is also American.
Q No, it’s not.
MR. GIBBS: No, no, I would disagree vehemently with that. There are -- there is nothing in the values of our country, there’s nothing on the many laws on our books that would provide for somebody to impugn and impede on the very freedoms that you began with by exercising the actions that that individual took on that day. That is not American.
There are -- I think there’s agreement on all sides of the political spectrum: Violence is never, ever acceptable. We had people that died. We had people whose lives will be changed forever because of the deranged actions of a madman. Those are not American. Those are not in keeping with the important bedrock values by which this country was founded and by which its citizens live each and every day of their lives in hopes of something better for those that are here.
END 11:14 A.M. EST
April 13, 2016
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